BEIJING – The number of volunteers sent to China by the Japan International Cooperation Agency to teach Japan’s language, culture and sports to children has declined markedly in recent years.
Volunteers peaked at 48 in fiscal 2006 but fell sharply to just one in fiscal 2014 and three in fiscal 2015.
The JICA program has been credited for increasing mutual understanding between the two countries at the grass-roots level — even during times of strained relations.
The decline partly reflects a cut in the official development assistance to China, which has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and the volunteer program is now at risk of disappearing due to a shortage of manpower.
JICA started sending volunteers to China in December 1986, and 807 have since made the journey.
Earlier this month, a ceremony was held in Beijing to mark the 30th anniversary of the program. The event was joined by Hiroshi Yamamoto, 55, who gave swimming lessons to children in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, as one of the first four volunteers.
When Yamamoto invited some 10 children to his room to watch TV on a summer night in 1987, an anti-Japanese war drama was broadcast. One of the children turned the TV set off. But a Chinese coach told the child that it was not necessary to turn it off as Yamamoto was their coach.
Yamamoto said he was impressed by the way the Chinese coach treated Japanese like they were Chinese.
The most volunteers JICA had in China at any one time was 90. But now it only has five.
One of them is Saki Yokobori, 27, who teaches Japanese to high school students in Tieling, Liaoning province.
“I don’t think that Chinese people who say they dislike Japan have ever met Japanese people,” Yokobori said. “I believe my presence here is helping Chinese people feel more familiar with Japan.” he said.